European zeitgeist and mysterious ways: Occupy information

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I have been absent from my blog for a while, as some of you may or may not have noticed. I found that travelling around Europe, flipping through airports and hotels and having intermittent or nonexistent internet access, combined with  more pressing and immediate priorities like talking to people, rather precluded paying attention to this blog. I promise to remedy this very soon now that I am safely back in my own familiar surroundings, with no need to rise at the crack of dawn to stand and wait around at airports for delayed planes.
My travels in Europe, the conferences, and of course the colleagues I met were all equally interesting, and I will report on them in more detail in the days that follow.  These included researchers as diverse as David Lankes and Alexandros Koulouris; Anna Maria Tammaro and Edward Fox; Seamus Ross and Vittore Casarosa; Marie-Helene Lay and Amanda Spink.

Suffice to say, while the technologists may not yet get it – neither those who own IT companies nor those who labour in the fields of computer science – other information professionals are growing more and more aware that they have special additional and irreplaceable skills to offer the networked world. This was, for me, most encouraging.  Equally inspiring was evidence of a zeitgeist that is emphasising, more and more, the necessity for the traditional information professionals not only to work with one another, but to work with the newer kids on the block. Looking at only one aspect at a time – and this has been almost exclusively the economic/financial aspect – is now being shown to be inadequate.
So, together with a new economic model that is being called for internationally by the ‘Occupy’ movements everywhere, we need a new information model, particularly with regard to access and distribution.

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My bucket list – for the information professionals

Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox from Batman Begins.

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I suppose I had better make it quite clear what I mean by ‘information professionals’, and also that I do not think they are necessarily looking at their impending demise, in the same way that Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson were challenged in the film of the same name.  After having been in this field for some time, of course I have seen changes, but some things have, sadly remained the same since I entered it in 1980: the public ignorance about what we do; the pathetically misogynist caricature that is made of us; the quick and easy belief that we can be supplanted at the drop of an internet connection; failure to understand what lives would be like without access to the materials – and rather more specifically, the ideas – that we make possible as our task.  By ‘information professional‘, I mean those of us who assist in communicating ideas (and feelings, of course) from one human mind to another, regardless of time and distance, in particular by noting how ideas are recorded, and caring for those records to ensure that they can be physically and intellectually accessed as required.

Of course this is vague, general, aspirational, ill-defined and broad: but so, then, is human nature and the ideas and insights that our imaginations and intellects can conceive.  No shame in that.  And of course there is an ongoing shift (possibly evolution) in the ways in which ideas may be represented and recorded, in language and using various physical artefacts.  As humans, we have used sound, sculpture, light exposures on photosensitive materials, mud, blood, plant juices, movements, sounds, colours, stones, egg yolks – just about anything that you can think of, some more permanent than others, in order to do this.  No surprises there.  I don’t remember artists of old debating the pros and cons of lithographs versus oil paintings.

But all of this is utterly redundant and irrelevant if the aspirations in my bucket list are not realised.

1.  We deal with ideas, not books, or, indeed, documents of any kind.  Documents are convenient and secondary, mere facilitators of our goals.  We must be engaged with ideas, understanding, and what we and everybody else think and have thought of reality.

2.  We have a social responsibility to ensure that ideas flow in society as and when they are needed.  We should make our systems as transparent as possible.  Working together will help (a ‘world brain‘ of information professionals).

3.  I don’t want people attracted to the information professions simply because they enjoy reading.  Or even, perhaps, if they imagine themselves as literary.  Literature is only one, very small part, of the ideas with which we must work and with which we must be familiar.

4.  United, we should be able to fashion a compelling argument for people like David Cameron, who should not only fund libraries (and other cultural institutions) generously, but also pour money into schools so that everybody has a good level of functional AND critical literacy.  Education is a basic human right.  Everybody must understand the cultural symbols of their milieu and make sense of them.  Never mind all the distractions about different kinds of literacy: the ability to  ‘read’ any medium, with critical ability, is what the world wants.  AND creativity.  Anything else is going to be really dangerous in the long run.

5.  I want the world to be curious.  This means that even though meeting the basic necessities of life (food, shelter, clothing, health) can be very demanding, people will realise that are are more ways in which this can be accomplished if they can learn about what solutions others have come to.  There are many ways to live our lives, and just one of them may make you happy.  (Which, in my view, is the purpose of life).

6.  I want cultural memory institutions to be capable of making life better, and to be recognised for doing so.  And we must work out how this is to be achieved.

Well, this is my Sunday flight of fancy.  I would be really, really, happy if these were to be achieved by a communal effort.

Have a good week, everybody.

Creativity, strategy and innovation – for sheer survival

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It seems to me that these are the essential competencies for the new breed of information professionals, instead of wondering about what (if any) technical, technological or theoretical skills should be taught in places of higher learning that educate such people.  What is required most on the ground is not people who can use information and communication technologies (ICTs) (because everybody born after 1985 has these skills, and the rest of us have already learnt them – and we all continue learning them on a daily basis, so how can a formal programme possibly keep up?).  We do not need to emphasise writing software or designing web pages, either – nor doing elaborate database construction exercises, nor any of the cutting-edge technological stuff that computer scientists (aka technologists) do very well indeed, thank you.  You lot could work a bit more closely with us lot thought, especially in overlapping areas such as ontologies, human/system interaction, information retrieval and so forth, but I’ll leave that alone for now.  In the meantime,  algorithms have taken the place of indexing; the internet issues or grants access to documents.  We also do not need people who are so involved with theoretical foundations and philosophies that they are unable to persuade the powers that be (i.e. those who control the purse-strings) of the necessity for our professional services or who cannot  provide compelling and convincing press releases, or suitably snazzy and controversial soundbites for television news.

With the world being as it is – and I will refrain from trying to elaborate on this point too much, as I am not entirely sure what the world is nowadays with everything being as jumbled up and confusing as it is – it would appear that if the information professions are to survive at all, they need to develop a different persona.  In spite of the fact that we have been drenched with the idea of the so-called ‘information society’ and pelted with new hardware and software capabilities for a couple of decades now, the link between the communication of ideas and information professionals does not yet appear to have been made in the public mind.  This is deeply worrying.  That the present Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, David Cameron, a well-educated man by all accounts, is naive enough to suggest that public libraries in Britain can be staffed and run by volunteers, is beyond mind-boggling.

Besides an understanding of our professional social responsibility – our professional raison d’etre – we need imagination, curiosity, embrace of new and strange ideas, capacity to change and turn nimbly and quickly, an adventurous spirit that has little fear of failure (it seems as if we have already failed so dramatically that we have nowhere further to drop to) and is willing to try different things and different ways of doing things.  Above all, perhaps, it a sense of political power and the development of strategic descriptions, encounters, events, plans or whatever that will catch the attention of both the public and the purse-string holders.  This is the major reason, I believe, that collaboration between the information professions is so essential.  It rises above turf wars, listserv debates, preaching to the converted, and the whole enclave or laager mentality that we have clung to for too long.

In an age that seems to rely on – nay, is predicated upon – spin, the mass media, disinformation and social networking – information professionals should use the same mechanisms and techniques if they are to survive.  It has often been noted that the side that ‘wins’ is that side whose story is most believed, and not necessarily whose army is the biggest.  There is an abundant literature on creativity and innovation, strategies and implementing plans to achieve goals, so there is little point in repeating all of that here.  But I would urge you, gentle reader, to talk to those OUTSIDE of your immediate sphere rather than seeking consolation from within the ranks where of course you will find understanding and a shoulder to cry on.  You should dangerously venture into the world of realpolitik to engage those who make the important decisions that affect us, rather than relying on public goodwill, that concedes that ‘libraries are good to have’ and ‘reading is a mark of civilisation’.  These sentiments, perhaps sadly, don’t mean anything at all in today’s rather more brutal world.  We will end up going round and round in circles until the inevitable happens.  Or perhaps it is already too late.

Is knowledge management really information management?: a question of crucial definition

Picture of italian philosopher Luciano Floridi

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No, I am not going to repeat the argument so well put forward many years ago by Tom Wilson (The nonsense of knowledge management, 2002, http://informationr.net/ir/8-1/paper144.html), with which I largely agree.  While Professor Wilson argues his case well, he largely comes to the conclusion that the term ‘knowledge management’ was formulated in order to cover a number of organisational managerial and communication issues, without much of a nod to – or even recognition of – the existing field of Library and Information Science, or Information Studies, or Information Studies, or whatever you want to call it.  This poverty of nomenclature – the continuing disregard that we information professionals seem to have to clarity of expression – is at the heart, I believe, of many of the perennial issues and problems that fracture our field to no real purpose.

Wilson has, from time to time, referred back to ‘knowledge management’, reinforcing his point that, as a practice or field of study, it doesn’t really exist as a separate entity, as it is identical in process and conception to information management.  What would help his argument enormously, I believe, is if he were able to use definitions for these terms (‘information’ and ‘knowledge’) that had achieved consensus in the field.  Then, we would not have to explain to all of those involved in this field, many of whom are drawn from management, information systems, business studies, technology and so forth – exactly what it is that needs to be done in order to manage ‘knowledge’.  We could perhaps even encourage these folk to take a look at the masses of research already completed in our field concerning precisely the issues with which knowledge managers now engage: assisting in the communication of ideas from one human to another.  As I have written elsewhere (e.g. 2005 and 2007), I understand information professionals to be ‘information interventionists’: we intervene in the knowledge creation cycle.

The central issue, though, is that we importantly have not yet come to a widely accepted definition of ‘information’ or ‘knowledge’.  By this I mean, rather more precisely, that we do not have an operational definition that works for our field and for the work we do.  James Gleick, author of Chaos, inter alia, has now published a book on information: ‘Information: a history, a theory, a flood‘ (Fourth Estate, 2011) and one must admire him for his courage and ability to do so.  Having said that, he does not move us forward to understand better what ‘information’ is.  Neither does philosopher Luciano Floridi, who has written extensively on this topic and on the philosophy of information.  However much the data-information-knowledge model (often represented in pyramid form) is criticised or maligned, this still remains the starting point, or mental model, for both authors.  In Gleick’s case, the concept is further confused with information objects or entities, technology, networks and the new physics.  I find the understanding of information in the new physics fascinating: Information: the new language of science is probably my favourite book on this subject.  But this does not conceptualise the notion of  ‘information’ in a way that is meaningful for those of us who wish to assist people to create their own knowledge by finding out what others have thought, created, felt, experienced and so on.

This is why I wrote a PhD thesis on the topic of defining information. What I found in my research, amongst many other interesting things, is the political nature of the definition and interpretation of information, and I believe it would be appropriate for us to pay more attention to such dimensions of the core of our discipline/profession.

[I can let you have a digital copy of this work: email me or make a note here].

Collaboration can be fun

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If we knew what it was, why it was necessary and how it could work.

I have long contended that recognition of what is similar amongst the information professionals is more useful – and perhaps more logical – than focusing on what is different.  At the same time, I recognise that clarifying and protecting professional territory is important for a number of reasons, and I also realise that there are differences in approaches to information problems and in the ways in which these may be dealt with.  But these differences, to my mind, provide as strong a motivation for collaboration as the similarities, as they form the basis for synergestic relationships.

Boyd Rayward mentioned in 1994 that , “Over the past 20 or 30 years… there has been growing awareness that what has been accepted as separating these professions may no longer be relevant and may have become dysfunctional” (Rayward, 1994, p. 163).  The areas of commonality exceed those that separate.  For example, we can all recognise that all kinds of information professionals are engaged with users, organisations, information technologies, products and services.  They are all concerned with the origination, collection, organisation, storage, retrieval, interpretation, transmission, transformation and utilisation of information, as contained in documents of some kind.  Moreover, they are all concerned with the information contained by the documents, whatever this might be.  These similarities exist even though one community (for example, records managers) may privilege certain attributes or characteristics of a document (e.g. its potential for complying with evidentiality requirements) over others (such as popularity).

A cross-sectoral competency analysis undertaken by Gendron (1998) provided a clear picture of the work elements involved in information work in archives, libraries and records management, which exposed a common profile.  However dissimilar they may superficially appear to be, they still perform many similar functions, although the emphasis on one or the other might vary: identifying information needs; understanding how individuals search for and use information identified as being valuable to them; identifying and making accessible the documents which provide such information, by describing the documents; protecting information, both physically and virtually, and preserving the documents (and their information) that are believed to have long-term historical or social value.

Some time ago (2005), I drew up this list of the tasks of information work.  You may be aware of some that have been inadvertently omitted: if so, please feel free to add them.

1. Alignment of provision of information with the goals and objectives of the organisation or community or wider society;

2. Identification of information and documents that might be used and must be managed (this might even involve asking people who have knowledge to record some of this, as information, in documents in order to transcend spatio-temporal constraints – for example in knowledge management projects);

3. Collecting the documents – whether physically or virtually (through links or databases);

4. Ensuring the integrity and ‘value’ (whatever that may mean within a particular context) of documents;

5. Describing the documents in order to organise them whether physically or virtually – classification and coding, subject indexing, construction and use of thesauri and controlled vocabularies, cataloguing and indexing by names, places, and events, documentation of artefacts, both for management purposes and as a resource for scholarship, database design and data structures;

6. Providing access to documents – whether physically or virtually – classification and coding, subject indexing, construction and use of thesauri and controlled vocabularies, cataloguing and indexing by names, places, and events, documentation of artefacts, both for management purposes and as a resource for scholarship, database design and data structures;

7. Preventing access to documents – whether physically or virtually;

8. Storing and preserving documents – whether physically or virtually;

9. Information audits and reviews of document and artefact collections, discarding those that have no continuing value, and discerning, describing, arranging and protecting documents and artefacts that have exceptional qualities and perceived long-term value;

10.  Management of all these activities.

The information professions, therefore, whether they are aware of it or not, share a number of issues of concern, such as uniform metadata, information retrieval, intellectual property, and intellectual capital, ethics, digital document management and preservation, the nature of information, organisational management, database structure and use, systems analysis, user needs and behaviour, legal influences, information resources, evaluating information and professional education.  The boundaries between the subdisciplines are shown to be quite permeable, as themes, issues, topics and research run across all the major professional journals in each field, in spite of the apparently different discourses and methodologies shown by each.

Unfortunately for all of us, instead of collaboration, and spaces in which we can share our different ‘takes’ on these issues, we have diversified and become increasingly fragmented, instead.  This fragmentation is expressed in various ways: in nomenclature (knowledge engineers, strategic information managers, digital adventurers, information analysts, literacy enablers – just about anything is possible); it is expressed in the diversity of professional associations that an information professional can join (and I will leave you to fill in the missing words here); it is also expressed in the variety of terminology that is used to describe the same entity or phenomenon, in different fields.  For example, ‘information’ is ‘data’ for some, but ‘knowledge’ for others; the ‘user’ is the user of a library, a facility, a machine, a document or perhaps even a piece of evidence; ‘literacy’ may mean the ability to read and write, or to navigate through multi- and transmedia.  In some information work practices, the document itself is more important than the information it might contain; in other areas, the ‘document’ as such barely exists, except as a string of bits and bytes.

The increasing sophistication of information users (and that, really, means everybody on the planet to a greater or lesser extent) and of information and communication technologies seem to indicate, however, that a cooperative, multiparty assembly of information professionals, who can share and participate using their assorted and unique skills to tackle society’s information problems, may be the most successful way to go, in the long run.  Val Turchin has suggested such a model, which he calls the ‘metasystem transition‘ model (or MST).  In this model, various ‘parts’ or ‘components’ or ‘subsystems’ recognise their similarities – in both processes and goals – and identify as belonging to the same conceptual territory.  MST can be thought of as the reverse of the ‘general to specific’ processes that we engage in when constructing hierarchies.  Instead of thinking ‘trees’ – ‘evergreen trees’ – ‘citrus trees’ – ‘orange trees‘ – ‘blood orange trees’, the ‘orange trees’ are recognised as having something in common (or, indeed, several things in common) and eventually end up recognising the ‘meta’ or general or holistic group to which they belong.

Increasing fragmentation seems to me to be the way to disintergration and final destruction, which means that the work that we undertake,  the ways in which we do it, the purposes for which this work is performed, will be destroyed.

Summary of Notes from CMA

http://amplify.com/u/arw03 Collaborations and working together between librarians, records managers and archivists. An interesting discussion concerning vocabulary and culture of each group. http://amplify.com/u/brw0d

Internets = srs.biz. Parody motivator.

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http://amplify.com/u/brvzm Communities and collaboration – thriving as a 21st century information professional http://amplify.com/u/brvzu